By JULIE DOWNS
for The Miscellany
COLUMBIA Listening was a key point in Father Thomas J. McSweeney’s keynote address at the recent Stewardship Day. It is a topic the priest knows well, as he never tires of hearing others tell him their stories.
Father McSweeney has served as director of the organization known as The Christophers for a year. As the keynote speaker at the Stewardship Day he addressed “Communicating Stewardship.” Father McSweeney spends a great deal of his job traveling and communicating the message of The Christophers, an organization which thrives on the communications it receives from others; the stories that serve as the glowing candles of their motto: “It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.”
“True stewards do not do it for the money. They do it because they have experienced the living presence of God loving us … fueled by human engagement and sharing our stories with others,” Father McSweeney told his audience at the Stewardship Day.
The Christophers use the mass media to spread two basic ideas: There’s nobody like you, and you can make a difference. While that message was delivered to an audience of stewardship workers Sept. 24, Father McSweeney said he would shortly be off to speak before Catholic health care providers and Catholic construction workers, among others.
“It is important to get out and about. I often feel like a missionary,” he said.
And like the best missionaries, Father McSweeney believes in what he is preaching, converting souls to a kind of Christian “power of positive thinking” through sharing human success stories that pour into The Christophers headquarters in New York. While the subject matter may be bleak (a struggle with violence, drug abuse, etc.), The Christophers focuses on the happy endings.
“Whenever darkness overwhelms someone, this is a way we can show that you do not have to be overwhelmed by it.”
Father McSweeney spent 25 years working in the media prior to joining The Christophers in June 1996. He was born the year The Christophers was founded, in 1945, in Erie, Pa. His first experience with the organization he would later serve came as a child, when his mother, a baptized Anglican, would often refer the “Christopher News Notes.” “On countless occasions at our kitchen table she would share with me one of the stories she had just read.”
He said he knew early on that he wanted to go into communications, beginning with an interest in the theater as a child. He would later receive a master’s degree in Speech and Drama from The Catholic University of America in 1980. He received a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy from St. Bonaventure University in New York before studying for the priesthood at Catholic University. He was ordained in 1971.
In addition to many years as a communications professor, Father McSweeney has produced several television programs and written a number of articles, including a regular column in The New Catholic Miscellany.
And with the hopeful stories that are shared with him, there is no shortage of material for speeches or columns. Like the waitress, whose fondest memory of 32 years on a job was the special feeling of individuality she gave a young child when she asked him, and not the adults accompanying him, for his order. Or the sick child who gave his cherished teddy bear to a doctor who had performed sight-saving surgery on him. The doctor, in turn, placed the bear in a glass case with the inscription: “Highest fee ever paid for services rendered.”
“The child knew how to give and the doctor knew how to accept,” Father McSweeney told his audience. The story of giving and receiving was especially suited to the stewardship crowd and Father McSweeney said he enjoyed the opportunity to address a topic he sees as very much part of The Christophers’ spirit.
He said he also sees the spirit at work in the Diocese of Charleston in the direction of the Synod of Charleston and preparations for the Millennium.
“This diocese is poised for the spirit to do its thing,” he said.